Influence can be more forceful than power

Ask yourself how many leaders a leader grows and you may learn the higher purpose of her or his leadership.  Having shared in the International Chabad’s annual Conference Banquet earlier this week, I witnessed firsthand how many thousands of leaders the Lubavitcher Rebbe continues to inspire.  But not all larger purposes are noble and not all leaders inspire generosity.

How can we tell the difference between a leader who is self-promoting and one who stands for something larger than him or herself? The former pursues power, the latter generates influence. The former alienates, the latter inspires. The former self-inflates, the latter stirs others by example.

In this week’s portion of Torah we learn that Isaac specializes in digging wells.  After restoring Abraham’s wells, he sets out to dig his own.  Initially he runs into trouble with the local population and aptly names the first two wells esek (argumentation) and sitna (hatred).  Each of these wells is dug by Isaac’s servants vayachp’ru (they dug).  The third time, however, when Isaac takes personal responsibility by digging himself vayachpor (he dug) (Gen. 26:19, 21, 22), the outcome is dramatically different.  “And he moved on from there and dug another well, and they did not quarrel over it, and he called its name rehovot (spacious) and said, “Because now God has widened for us, and we’ve been fruitful in the land” (Gen. 26:22).  Isaac’s personal involvement and perseverance engendered spaciousness. 

But if the story were simply about not delegating or living vicariously we might miss the point.  This is especially true in today’s world that champions self-reliance, the individual, and independence.  Isaac’s personal involvement is understood not as an isolated act but rather as leading by example whereby others followed and dug in a similar manner (Netziv).  His ever-widening influence was generative and replenishing.

‘Empowerment’ – despite the word’s etymology – is not optimized in a power-framework as much as in an influence-framework.  May we seek and meet influential leaders who stir and liberate blessed potential in others for good.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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